BOOK REVIEW: I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

I Have No Mouth and I Must ScreamI Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This collection of short fiction by Harlan Ellison consists of only seven stories. It was originally published in the late 1960’s and a second edition was released in 1983—the latter being the edition I read. Despite a bit of Cold War zeitgeist–most notably in the title story—this collection holds up well to time.

I’ll proceed by discussing each of the seven stories.

1.) I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream: It’s after World War III, the Soviets, Americans, and Chinese had built artificial intelligences (AIs) to help prosecute the war. The AIs ganged up against humanity and exterminated all humans—excepting five individuals (4 men and 1 woman.) The AI finds a way to indefinitely extend the lives of the five so that it can keep its playthings around. The AI is kind of like a sadistic child with an ant farm. The story is told from the perspective of one of the five remaining humans.

2.) Big Sam Was My Friend: A folksy narrator tells the tale of how a fellow interstellar circus performer met his ends. The deceased, Big Sam, was capable of teleportation, like the character Nightcrawler (Kurt Wagner) in the X-men. Ellison does an excellent job of creating a unique character and tone in this story.

3.) Eyes of Dust: On a planet of beautiful people, there remains a family of uggos–and the child is the ugliest of all. However, ugliness isn’t the boy’s only unique trait. This is one of the weaker stories of the collection in my opinion, but it’s not bad.

4.) World of The Myth: The three-person crew of a spaceship crashes on an unfamiliar planet. The planet is inhabited by ant-like creatures that can form complex shapes, and through such displays the creatures can reflect the essence of who a person is back at them. This proves more than the despicable captain of the small crew can bear.

5.) Lonelyache: This story is more realism than speculative fiction—or at least I interpreted it that way. It’s about a guy who’s gone through a divorce recently, and is living alone. The story intersperses recurringly-themed dreams in which men are trying to kill the lead character, with waking sequences which revolve around the man’s troubled relationships with women.

6.) Delusion For a Dragon Slayer: In the Introduction, we are told by Theodore Sturgeon that the description in this story is very much how people on hallucinogens experience the world. I can see what Sturgeon is saying. The story begins with a series of vignettes about people who died for no logical reason and at the least likely times. The story then tells an extended tale of one such death, that of the lead character, in a way that mixes dream and reality in a way that’s hard to differentiate.

7.) Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes: A man in Las Vegas hits the jackpot on a slot machine. He feels compelled to engage in the very sucker-like behavior of playing the same machine again, but he wins again and then keeps winning. The casino obviously suspects foul play with the second jackpot, but they can’t find anything wrong with the machine or any way in which the man might be cheating. All their investigation reveals is that a woman had died playing that machine some time before.

I’d recommend this book for those who like short speculative fiction. The best of the stories are outstanding, and the worst of them are still intriguing and readable. I will say that it’s not a collection for readers with delicate sensibilities–including young readers. (e.g. Rape is a theme that repeats in a couple of stories.)

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READING REPORT: February 6, 2015

I polished off three books this week. That’s not as impressive as it might seem; they were all slim volumes. I’ll do reviews on these books in the near future, but a few words about each will suffice here.

The first was Zen Mind, Strong Body; a book about which I had mixed feelings. It’s by a calisthenics expert named Al Kavadlo, who is a personal trainer, author, and YouTube phenom. On the positive side, Kavadlo is a sharp guy with many useful insights into bodyweight exercise and fitness in general. Additionally, Kavadlo eschews the snake-oil salesmanship that is rampant in the fitness world.

On the other hand, the book is basically a rehash of blog posts, and the “new / first time seen pictures” aren’t useful for learning the exercises because they’re mostly just the author standing in random places with his shirt off. Furthermore, there’s no such consolidating theme to the book as is suggested by the title. I think it just has that title (a take-off on DT Suzuki’s classic work on Zen) because “The Best of Al Kavadlo’s Blog Posts” doesn’t scream “buy me.” I thought a little extra value-added could have been provided for the people who paid for the book, but you will learn from it.

The second book was Quarantine in the Grand Hotel. This novel brings satire and humor into a locked-door mystery. It was written by a Hungarian author in the 1930’s, but remains a readable and enjoyable book.

IHaveNoMouthThe third book was the short story collection by Harlan Ellison that I mentioned I would begin this week. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream consists of seven stories that are nominally in the genre of science fiction, but could also be classified as tales of the strange. This book was first published in 1967. Ellison writes stories in a readable style, though one that can sometimes be called “trippy.” If I were going to award a “book of the week” for the book that I found most engaging, it would be this one.

I only got a couple of chapters each into the Mo Yan novel Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out and the epic poem The Aeneid. The former is readable has a fascinating premise, but the latter–not unexpectedly– is a little more of a chore to read (but is a classic and seems worth the difficulties.)

Having finished off some nonfiction in the preceding week, I made room to resume reading a book that I started a couple of months ago entitled Why Do People Get Ill? A two-man team consisting of a psychoanalyst and a neuroscientist joined together to write this book. It examines the role that stress and the mind play in illness. Yes, things like germs (i.e. bacteria and viruses) cause illness. However, that’s not the whole story, and a couple of key questions remain. First, how come some people can be repeatedly exposed to causative factors and their bodies knock out disease leaving them asymptomatic. Second, how come others readily come down with ailments–sometimes even when they haven’t been exposed to causative factors. To put matters in scholarly terms, germs may be a necessary condition for disease, but they are rarely a sufficient condition.

WhyDoPeopleGetIll_Leader&Corfield

 

I didn’t do much yoga or martial arts specific reading this week. However, today I finally began The Pyjama Game, which is a book about Judō that I mentioned in one of my previous Reading Reports.

I purchased four books this week, all on Kindle and mostly on sale.  Those books, which I’m sure to be discussing and reviewing on later dates are:

TheThreeStigmata

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch: Because I’m a huge PKD fan, and this is said to be one of his best books–of his books that I haven’t yet read. This was in the Kindle Monthly Deals.

FirstHubby

First Hubby: This will be my first Roy Blount Jr. book, but I did enjoy him on that NPR game show (i.e. Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!) This was also a Kindle Monthly Deal as I recall.

Ikkyu_Berg

Ikkyu: Crow with No Mouth: This is the story of a Zen master who lived in Kyoto in the 15th century. He sounds like a fascinating man, and was also a skilled poet. This one wasn’t on sale, but neither was it expensive at the usual price.

TheElementsThe Elements: This book is a Kindle Daily Deal as I’m writing this. I love me some science. I did have to look through the sample pages before buying. Even though it was inexpensive, I was concerned that it might not have much usefulness on my black&white, base-model Kindle because the graphics are an important part of the book. However, it looked like there was enough text explanation to be worth the $2.00–even if the graphics don’t show up well.

And that was my week in books.

READING REPORT: January 30, 2015

Welcome to my second weekly dispatch on what I’ve been reading. Owing to my weird approach to reading, I tend to finish books in clusters, and this week I polished off the novel The Martian, the horror short story anthology 999, and three nonfiction books (Principles of Tibetan Medicine, The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga,  and How Pleasure Works.) The only one of these that I’ve completed a review on is Principles of Tibetan Medicine, but reviews of the others will be in the works in the upcoming week(s.)


The star of my completed pile was Andy Weir’s The Martian. It’s a spectacular science fiction read that’s engaging from beginning to end. Readers who love science will find it particularly fascinating and well-researched. For the yogis and yoginis out there, Ray Long’s book on muscles as applied to Hatha Yoga is well-organized, easy to follow, and easy to use.

 

The completion of several books this week creates openings in what fiction and poetry I’ll be reading on Kindle in the coming weeks. Drum-roll please… I will be starting the following books this week:


MoYan_LDWMO

1.) Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan: Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 2012, and this 2006 book is about a benevolent land owner who is killed on orders by Mao Zedong, and is subsequently reincarnated as a series of farm animals.


 

IHaveNoMouth

2.) I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison: The title of this collection of short stories is also the title of the most prominent piece in it. The 1968 Hugo winning story is a post-apocalyptic tale of artificial intelligence run amok.


 

Aeneid

3.) The Aeneid of Virgil: I’m overdue to read this epic poem by the famous Latin poet written during the first century B.C.


 

In nonfiction, I made an impulse purchase this week that I’m about half way through reading. It’s called Zen Mind, Strong Body and it’s by Al Kavadlo. I’m having minor buyer’s remorse, not because it’s a bad book, but because it turns out to be a collection of blog posts, and so I could have probably gotten all this for free by digging around the world wide web a little. (Moral: always read the fine print on the dust jacket. I wouldn’t mind, but it was a bit pricey for rehashed blog posts.) Kavadlo is a personal trainer and advocated of calisthenics and advanced bodyweight exercises, and he has many interesting ideas on both mind and body. It has provided some interesting food for thought, but I don’t really need the hundreds of pictures of the author with his shirt off.

ZenMindStrongBody



 

I’m about halfway through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book, Antifragile, and would like to make some headway on that in the upcoming week. While I’m a fan of Taleb’s work, I’ve gotten bogged down in this one because it keeps going and going and going on about a rather simple concept–i.e. that some things become stronger or more robust when exposed to stressors. I’m not sure the book needed to be this long. I suspect that Taleb is the kind to throw a world class tantrum if an editor took a hatchet to a word of his writing–and now he has the following to make it work. He’s a smart guy and raises many excellent points, but he seems like a major prima donna. At any rate, maybe he’ll surprise me in the second half with something novel and interesting–in lieu of endless restatement of his (admittedly fascinating) thesis.

Antifragility



 

I also started a book a few weeks back called Zen and the Brain by James H. Austin that I’d like to get back to. It examines what science has to say about the practice of meditation from the perspective of a neuroscientist who’s also a Zen practitioner.

Zen&Brain



 

At the end of last year, I did a post about the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge. It’s a sort of scavenger hunt for readers. There are 25 categories of books, of which one is supposed to read at least one book each. If you can count the same book for several categories (I don’t see why not as long as they fit the description) then I have so far covered seven categories. (Not bad for the first month of the challenge.)

-Collection of short stories: 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense

Author of a different gender: Tears in Rain (Rosa Montero) and Principles of Tibetan Medicine (Tamdin Rither Bradley) [Both females]

Science-fiction novel: The Martian

Collection of poetry: Leaves of Grass

A book recommended for you by someone else: The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga

-A book originally published in another language: Tears in Rain  (Spanish)

A book published in 2014: The Martian (Some might dispute this as it was self-published in 2011, but not picked up by a publisher until 2014.)

BOOK REVIEW: Alien Sex Ed. Ellen Datlow

Alien Sex: 19 Tales by the Masters of Science Fiction and Dark FantasyAlien Sex: 19 Tales by the Masters of Science Fiction and Dark Fantasy by Ellen Datlow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Alien Sex is an anthology of 19 works of short fiction that revolve around sex, attempted sex, or sex-like behavior with non-human entities. While the title leads one to believe the book is specifically about sex with aliens from outer space, that’s not the case in all these stories. There are also stories where the object of affection is a lesser primate, an incubus, a new species, and a biologically-modeled robot. As one would expect with life forms from other worlds, the “sexual” act is not always what we would recognize as sex. (e.g. One planet’s whoopee might be another’s mundane act.) As a last warning about what the book is not, it’s not—on the whole—a collection of sci-fi erotica. A number of the stories probably wouldn’t be arousing to the freakiest of super-freak, and I can only assume weren’t meant to be.

While there’s a unifying theme, the works included cover a lot of ground in terms of style and format. It’s not even true to say it’s 19 short stories because there’s one poem and one chapter that reads more like an essay (i.e. lacks a narrative structure.) Some of the works are written in the language, tone, and style of erotica, but others aren’t. A few of them read like thinly veiled commentary on problems in the author’s own love life—i.e. cheating spouses, feeling a lack of attentiveness, or porn addiction. (Each work has a brief author commentary at the end, and a couple of the authors suggest that what was going on in their own life or those close to them shaped the idea.)

While the appeal of the works varied significantly, overall this was a fun and intriguing read. The works included are as follows:

1.) Her Furry Face by Leigh Kennedy
A primate handler who is in a waning marriage falls for one of his super-intelligent orangutan students.

2.) War Bride by Rick Wilbur
The world is going to end tomorrow unless you’ve been taken as a pet by one of the aliens.

3.) How’s the Night Life on Cissalda by Harlan Ellison
A man sent to investigate an alien race becomes inextricably sexually entangled with one of the aliens. Eventually, he’s forcibly separated from the alien—of a race that are apparently thin-skinned—and lives to see the descent of mankind.

4.) The Jamesburg Incubus by Scott Baker
A teacher in a Catholic school finds that he can make out-of-body nocturnal visits to some of his more attractive female students.

5.) Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex by Larry Niven
This reads more like an essay than a short story. The work delves into the physics of why sex with Superman would be fatal for Lois Lane.

6.) The First Time by K.W. Jeter
This is a variation on the old coming of age story in which a young man is taken to a brothel for his first sexual encounter. It’s just that this encounter is of the 3rd kind.

7.) The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod by Philip José Farmer
The premise behind the story is what if William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch) had written the Tarzan stories instead of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In essence, it’s a risqué take on Tarzan.

8.) Husbands by Lisa Tuttle
After the extinction of husbands, a woman develops a new species to serve the companion role.

9.) When the Fathers Go by Bruce McAllister
A husband confesses to his wife that while she was in stasis waiting for him to come back from interplanetary travel, he sired a child with an alien. Furthermore, the child is coming to live with them. But wait there’s more…

10.) Dancing Chickens by Edward Bryant
This story reads more like an overly elaborate joke than a short story. It begins with the question, “What do aliens want?” and ends with a pun punch line. That being said, the lead is an unappealing but intriguing character.

11.) Roadside Rescue by Pat Cadigan
A stranded motorist is made an indecent proposal by a chauffeur on behalf of his alien employer.

12.) Omnisexual by Geoff Ryman
This is about an intergalactic brothel, but it’s the story in the collection that reads most like literary fiction—meant in both the best and worst possible ways.

13.) All My Darling Daughters by Connie Willis
While there are several really good works in this anthology, I’d have to rank this as my favorite—if only by a narrow victory. A sassy, sexually-liberated co-ed has her sex life torn asunder when all the young men come back from break with little, furry creatures in their possession and no interest in the female student body. Besides a neat concept for a story (though it may be implying that men are overwhelmingly rapey), the author does a great job of character development making the lead character both interesting and likable, while juxtaposing her with her apparently goodie two-shoes roommate.

14.) Arousal by Richard Christian Matheson
A woman who cheats on her husband with a stranger is cursed with permanent post-coital euphoria that swamps all interest in her family and life in general.

15.) Scales by Lewis Shiner
A woman’s husband is having an affair with what she thinks is a student assistant, but who turns out to be a soul-sucking seductress from the netherworld.

16.) Saving the World at the New Moon Hotel by Roberta Lannes
A woman waiting for her spouse to meet her at a bar to apologize for his infidelities decides to get a little herself. The man she hooks up with turns out not to be a man at all.

17.) And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side James Tiptree, Jr.
An experienced man offers advice to a newbie to get away before he ends up seduced by the aliens. This story talks about sex, but is about something much broader.

18.) Picture Planes Michaela Roessner
This one is a poem about alien sex, rather than a story. It stands alone as the only non-prose entry.

19.) Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates Pat Murphy
In a post-apocalyptic world, a dying scientist–who no longer believes in science–creates robots capable of engaging in the act. The creatures she makes are based on a range of real animals which are written about interspersed with the story-line.

I’d recommend this book for those who enjoy science fiction. One need not be into erotica to enjoy the stories and, the more one is seeking erotica, the less appeal the book may have. It’s a collection of big name writers in science-fiction, and the anthology’s diversity makes it particularly interesting.

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